22 June 2005

Commission on Human Rights Holds Informal Meeting on Secretary-General's Reform Proposals

Proposal to Transform Commission into Human Rights Council, OHCHR Plan of Action Discussed

(Reissued as received.)

GENEVA, 20 June (UN Information Service) -- The Commission on Human Rights today held in Geneva a day of informal consultations on the recommendations relating to human rights made in the report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations entitled “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All”. Discussions centred around the possible transformation of the Commission into a standing Human Rights Council and the plan of action drawn up by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Where the new human rights body would stand in the structural hierarchy of the United Nations, what its membership would be and what membership criteria would apply, were matters that attracted particular attention.

At the beginning of the day, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour made an opening statement in which she indicated that she intended to put forward for discussion her options for the reform of the treaty-body system at an intergovernmental meeting in 2006. “Our world is changing at a dramatic pace. We must change with it if we are to succeed in our solemn mission to promote and protect all human rights for all,” she stated.

Over 50 delegations, including a dozen non-governmental organizations, took part in these informal consultations. Statements were made by representatives of the following countries: Egypt (on behalf of the Arab Group), Ethiopia (on behalf of the African Group), Pakistan (on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference), Luxembourg (on behalf of the European Union), Lebanon, Cuba, Azerbaijan, Iran, Singapore, Sudan, Malaysia, Switzerland, Nigeria, Liechtenstein, India, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Norway, Ukraine, Indonesia, China, Nepal, Mexico, Armenia, Canada, Russian Federation, Peru, South Africa, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Israel, United States of America, Honduras and Ecuador. The Observer for Palestine also made a statement.

Representatives for the following non-governmental organizations spoke: United Nations Watch; Lutheran World Federation; Centre Europe Tiers-Monde; International Service for Human Rights; the Greek National Human Rights Commission; Marangopoulos Foundation for Human Rights; International Federation for Human Rights; Association for World Education; Indigenous World Association; World Peace Council.

The Chairperson of the Commission, Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia, said that a summary of the consultations would be forwarded the following day, 21 June, to the President of the General Assembly through the President of the Economic and Social Council, thus providing valuable input into the intergovernmental consultations to be held from 21 to 23 June -- i.e. over the next three days -- on the draft outcome of the 60th session of the General Assembly.

Opening Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights

In an opening statement, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour noted that, though the Commission on Human Rights had a proud history, it must now build on that history to meet the new challenges of the age, confront emerging threats and overcome obstacles with new responses, new mechanisms and new hope. “Our world is changing at a dramatic pace. We must change with it if we are to succeed in our solemn mission to protect and promote all human rights for all”, she said.

The High Commissioner drew attention to two important proposals before Commission members for reforming and renewing the United Nations human rights programme. The first was the Secretary-General's proposal to replace the Commission with a standing Human Rights Council, ranking higher in the structure of the Organization and elected by the General Assembly. The Secretary-General proposed that the Council should be based in Geneva and exercise universal scrutiny of the implementation by all Member States of all their human rights obligations through a peer-review mechanism based upon fair, transparent and non-selective procedures.

The second proposal, the High Commissioner said, was the plan of action just drawn up by her Office and transmitted by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly. The plan acknowledged that, while the United Nations had produced a rich legacy of human rights standards, it was no time for a strategic shift from normative development to application. The plan was directed to addressing current human rights challenges, including those posed by poverty, discrimination, conflict, impunity, democratic deficits and institutional shortcomings. Equally important were recommendations for changes in management and planning and for a reasonable increase in resources. The plan also called for a unified treaty-body system: the current system was time-consuming and costly. The High Commissioner said she intended to submit her proposals for treaty-body reform for consideration at an intergovernmental meeting in 2006.

Summary of Informal Discussion

All delegations agreed that the work of the Commission had become politicized and selective and, hence, that reform was necessary. But it was emphasized that the obstacles which had led to the politicization and selectivity must be addressed, with emphasis on the need to do away with the shortcomings identified to date. Certainly the Commission needed to be remodelled, but its loss of credibility had nothing to do with structure or procedure; it stemmed, said one delegation, from the double standards applied when dealing with “country-specific situations”. A great many speakers alluded to the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence in human rights.

The idea of turning the Commission into a standing Human Rights Council appeared to be supported by the great majority of delegations. One speaker, however, said that the current system must first overcome the problems of selectivity and politicization that had been identified, and a new body was not necessarily required for that purpose. China said it was not yet convinced of the need to replace the Commission by such a Council. Some speakers said it was not clear to them why the Commission needed to be turned into a standing body since it could already meet in special session, and had indeed done so several times since its creation.

Delegations still differ widely on the appropriateness of elevating the future Human Rights Council to the status of a principal organ of the United Nations. The African Group, whose position was presented by Ethiopia, could go along with the idea of transforming the Commission into a council but saw no justification for giving the body the status of a principal organ. Many African and Asian delegations, but also the delegation of the United States, expressed a preference for a council that would be a subsidiary body of the General Assembly. Others indicated that they were firmly in favour of turning the Commission into a principal organ of the Organization.

The European Union, whose position was presented by Luxembourg, was unreservedly in favour of turning the Commission into a Human Rights Council in permanent session. It would favour a Council with the status of a free-standing Charter body of the United Nations linked to the General Assembly. Pending a decision by the General Assembly on the creation of such a body, the Council should, in the European Union's view, be established as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly so as to create a link with the Assembly. The European Union would support the proposal by the President of the General Assembly, along the lines of the procedure suggested by the Secretary-General, that the September summit meeting should agree on the main criteria and decide in principle to establish a Human Rights Council with a strong mandate. Other arrangements and details could be worked out later, during the sixtieth session of the Assembly.

One delegation emphasized that, even if the Council was set up as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, it would have the two basic characteristics of any principal organ of the United Nations if it proved to be a permanent body whose members were elected by a two-thirds majority. At any rate, turning the Commission into a council that was to become a principal organ would require an amendment to the Charter of the United Nations, and that, several speakers pointed out, would take time.

The European Union also argued that the Third Committee (social, humanitarian and cultural) of the General Assembly should be retained, though its future role would then have to be better defined. One delegation wondered what the Third Committee would do if a Human Rights Council was established. The mandate of a Human Rights Council, in the view of the United States, should be to take up the most serious human rights violations, while the Third Committee would concentrate on thematic issues. The Sub-Commission, according to the United States, should be abolished.

As regards the proposed peer-review system, the Arab Group, speaking through the Egyptian representative, felt that it would be useful to specify how, in practice, such a system would operate and what could be done to avoid politicization. One delegation outside the Arab Group voiced doubts and grave concerns about the idea of peer review, arguing that such a system would not solve the key problems of political manipulation and selectivity in the consideration of country-specific situations. Others argued that a peer-review mechanism would, on the contrary, subject every State to country-specific consideration and thus do away with any risk of selectivity. The African Group felt that the question of peer review was in any event too serious a matter to be decided on in haste. One speaker urged that the periodic peer-review mechanism should not impair the ability of the future Council to react to urgent situations.

Concerning the membership of the future body, the European Union was prepared to consider various possibilities. Like many other speakers, it stressed the need to ensure that the membership of the future Council respected the principle of equitable geographical distribution. One delegation emphasized that the idea of a universal body did not enjoy sufficient support. Several speakers nevertheless pointed out that greater participation in the new body, reflected in its membership, would be consistent with the universal character of human rights. The idea of a small council was also challenged by numerous speakers, stressing that a limited membership might make the new body less transparent and exacerbate the problems of politicization and selectivity which everyone was seeking to counter. India argued that a membership of around 53 for the new body appeared to suit everybody. One delegation felt that 65 members would be a reasonable size. The United States, however, felt that a small, 20-member body would be ideal.

A number of delegations supported the idea that members of the future Council should be elected by a two-thirds majority, but others expressed a preference for election by simple majority, pointing out that there was a danger that States not belonging to major groups would be excluded by a two-thirds majority requirement.

The Arab Group and several other delegations felt that no criteria other than those set forth in the Charter should apply to membership of the Human Rights Council: members should be elected by the General Assembly with due regard for the principle of equitable geographical distribution. Some delegations argued that a credible human rights record should be one criterion since, in their view, members of the future Council should observe the highest standards in human rights. Members who failed to meet such criteria after being elected ought, the United States argued, to leave the Council.

On the question of relations between the future body and the Security Council, the Arab Group and, in the person of the representative of Pakistan, the Organization of the Islamic Conference argued that the functions of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council should not be linked. The Organization of the Islamic Conference also felt that the Human Rights Council should not become a parallel Security Council. Brazil urged great caution on the subject of relations between the future Human Rights Council and the Security Council.

The European Union and other delegations were of the opinion that the Office of the High Commissioner should be assigned a larger role in matters such as cooperation with other United Nations bodies including the Security Council and the planned Peacebuilding Commission.

A great many delegations, including members of the Arab and African groups, supported the idea that the future body should be based in Geneva where the Office of the High Commissioner was already situated.

 The African Group rallied behind the idea, supported by many countries including those of the European Union, that the Commission’s strengths and established practices as regards special procedures and involvement of non-governmental organizations should be preserved. Some speakers nevertheless said that the special procedures system needed reforming, not least to improve coordination among the different mandates, which had proliferated in recent years. The Arab Group felt that the appointment of mandate-holders was not transparent. Several delegations dwelt on the need to maintain participation by civil society. Consultation of and full participation by non-governmental organizations and national institutions must be preserved, they emphasized.

All delegations supported the idea of increasing the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner. Most said they wished the increase to be covered by the regular budget of the United Nations, and the Arab Group made no secret of its desire for an Office of the High Commissioner that was less dependent on voluntary contributions. At all events, many delegations emphasized, voluntary contributions to the OHCHR budget should not be earmarked for specific programmes. The African Group, supported by many other delegations, argued that any increase in the budget for the Office of the High Commissioner should not come at the expense of resources for other programmes essential to developing countries.

Several non-governmental organizations spoke at the end of the day. One voiced surprise that the proposal to transform the Commission into a standing body appeared to be getting a favourable reception without having been adequately debated. Another said it was distressed at the proposal to dismantle the Commission.

* *** *